A Navy vet who killed a tourist and injured 22 others by driving through a pedestrian crowd in Times Square told his family years earlier that he suffered mental issues and needed help, his uncle testified Tuesday at his Manhattan murder trial.
“You are my family, and you know I am crazy ... and I am not getting the help I need,’” Richard Rojas told his uncle Rafael Reyes in a phone call before the May 18, 2017 carnage.
Rojas, of the Bronx, has schizophrenia and was motivated by severe mental illness, not a desire to kill, says his lawyer, Enrico DeMarco.
He does not deny that he plowed his Honda Accord through crowds after making an illegal U-turn on Seventh Ave. and speeding north for three blocks on the sidewalk from W. 42nd St to W. 45th St. He is pursuing an insanity defense, and DeMarco argues that Rojas lacked the capacity to know what he did was morally or legally wrong.
Reyes, who is the suspect’s maternal uncle, told a Manhattan Supreme Court jury through a Spanish interpreter that he brought his nephew to pick up prescription medication every other week when Rojas was a boy. He said he did not know what kind of medication it was, or what it was for.
He also recalled how his nephew’s mind appeared to slip. He said Rojas hallucinated going to work when he actually had not — which cost him a part-time position he’d secured as a driver after he was discharged from the Navy in 2014.
Reyes said Rojas’ manager called him at some point in the two years before the attacks, wondering why he never showed up to his job transporting university students. When the uncle followed up with Rojas to see what was going on, his nephew sounded delusional.
“[He] told me, ‘Yes, I already picked them up. I dropped them over to the university,’” Reyes testified, speaking Spanish. “[Rojas] never picked up the guys, and he never brought them ... In his mind, he picked them up, and he took them.”
Killed in the bloodshed was 18-year-old tourist Alyssa Elsman of Michigan, whose little sister previously testified about watching her die.
Maimed was New Jersey teen Jessica Williams, who was also 18 and was playing hooky with a friend when she was “basically cut in half” by Rojas’ vehicle, Assistant District Attorney Alfred Peterson said during the trial’s opening arguments.
The prosecutor said that the 21 other injured pedestrians suffered wounds ranging from “lucky and relatively mild to simply devastating.” Prosecutors seek to convict Rojas of second-degree murder and other charges.
The trial continues Wednesday.